VATICAN CITY, JULY 25, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at the midweek general audience.
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Dear Brothers and Sisters,
1. “I exalt my God, and my spirit rejoices in the King of heaven” (Tobit 13:7). The one who spoke these words, in the canticle we just heard, is the elderly Tobit, of whom the Old Testament gives a brief and edifying history, in the book named after him.
The narrative in the preceding pages must be kept in mind, if one is to fully understand the meaning of this hymn. The story is set among the Israelites exiled in Nineveh. The sacred author, who wrote many centuries later, refers to them as an example of brothers and sisters in faith dispersed among a foreign people and tempted to abandon the traditions of their fathers. Hence, the picture of Tobit and his family is given as a program of life. He is the man who, despite everything, remains faithful to the norms of the law and, in particular, to the practice of almsgiving. He was stricken by misfortune, as well as poverty and blindness, but his faith did not diminish. And, through the angel Raphael, God´s answer was not long in coming, leading the young Tobias in a risky journey to a happy marriage and, finally, healing his father Tobit from blindness.
The message is clear: Those who do good, especially by opening their hearts to the needs of their neighbors, are pleasing to the Lord and, although tested, in the end experience his benevolence.
2. In this context, the words of our hymn take on their full meaning. They invite us to gaze upon “God who lives for ever,” and on his Kingdom that “lasts for all ages.” From this gazing on God a small plan of the theology of history emerges, in which the sacred Author seeks to answer the questions that the dispersed and tried People of God are asking themselves: Why does God treat us like this? The answer is found in both divine justice and mercy: “He scourged you for your iniquities, but will again have mercy on you all” (verse 5). Thus, affliction seems to be a kind of divine pedagogy, in which, however, the last word is always reserved to mercy: “For he scourges and then has mercy; he casts down to the depths of the netherworld, and he brings up from the great abyss” (verse 2).
Therefore, one can have absolute confidence in God, who never abandons his creature. So the words of the hymn lead to a perspective, which attributes a salvific meaning to the very situation of suffering, turning the exile into an occasion to witness to the works of God: “Praise him, you Israelites, before the Gentiles, for though he has scattered you among them, he has shown you his greatness even there” (verses 3-4).
3. From this invitation to read the exile as a providential sign, our meditation can be extended to consider the mysteriously positive meaning that the condition of suffering assumes, when it is lived in abandonment to God´s plan. Already in the Old Testament several passages delineate this topic. Suffice it to think of the story of Joseph, narrated in the Book of Genesis (see Genesis 37:2-36) who was sold by his brothers and destined to be their savior in the future. And, how can we forget the Book of Job, who is really an innocent man who suffers, and does not know how to explain his drama except by entrusting himself to the greatness and wisdom of God (see Job 42:1-6).
For us who read these passages from the Old Testament from a Christian perspective, the point of reference can only be the Cross of Christ, in which the mystery of suffering in the world finds a profound answer.
4. To sinners who were punished for their transgressions (see verse 5), Tobit´s hymn is a call to conversion that opens the marvelous prospect of the “reciprocal” conversion of God and man: “When you turn back to him with all your heart, to do what is right before him, then he will turn back to you, and no longer hide his face from you” (verse 6). This use of the word “conversion” is very eloquent for the creature and for God, although with different meanings.
If the Author of the Canticle thinks, perhaps, of the benefits that accompany the “return” of God, namely his renewed favor toward the people, in light of the mystery of Christ, we must think, especially, of the gift consisting of God himself. Man has more need of him than of his gifts. Sin is a tragedy not so much because it brings God´s punishments, but because it banishes him from our heart.
5. This is why the Canticle directs us to gaze upon God as Father, inviting us to bless and praise him: “he is the Lord our God, our Father” (verse 4). One feels the sense of being special “children,” as Israel did with the gift of the covenant, which prepared the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Then, the Father´s face will shine in Jesus, his unlimited mercy will be revealed.
Suffice it to think of the parable of the merciful Father narrated by the evangelist Luke. To the conversion of the prodigal son not only does the father respond with forgiveness, but with an embrace of infinite tenderness, coupled with joy and celebration: “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The expressions of our Canticle are in line with this moving Gospel scene. And the need to praise and thank God springs forth: “So now consider what he has done for you, and praise him with full voice. Bless the Lord of righteousness, and exalt the King of the ages” (verse 6).
[Translation by ZENIT]